By Ian Frazer
For the Forsyth County News
With the benefit of hindsight, one of the Forsyth Central football team’s worst seasons doesn’t look too bad at all. In fact, Bulldogs head coach Frank Hepler can even look back on the 0-10 display in 2017 with a bit of fondness.
“[The 2017 season] really was not a low point as far as what was going on in our program,” Hepler said. “It probably was, in my 26 years as a head coach, one of the best years that I had, personally. Being 0-10 – one, it humbles you. It makes you go back and look at what you’re doing. And I got to see a bunch of young men fight and get better and try to win a game just to have it so they could say, ‘Man, we won a game this year.’”
That imaginary player is actually underselling the success Central experienced in 2018, which wasn’t just a bounce-back, but also one of the best seasons the program had seen in two decades. Some of the Bulldogs’ wins in non-region play came against overmatched opponents like Clarkston and Chamblee, but when it came to Region 5-7A action, Central’s wins against North Forsyth, South Forsyth and Lambert showed that the Bulldogs had reached the level of their county peers.
“Our school completely changed when we went from 0-10 to 7-3,” senior defensive lineman Alex Szakacs said. “Our whole team just felt better, getting that 0-10 off our back, coming back and having a great season like we did.”
And while that success was built on a deep group of seniors, especially on defense, they weren’t the only ones contributing, and Central looks to have the potential to replicate 2018’s success and possibly even improve in some areas.
One area that will certainly be different – and the Bulldogs hope more stable – will be quarterback. That was a spot that Central counted to be senior-led in 2018, but when Hunter Cagle tore his ACL in the team’s scrimmage, sophomore Ryan Van Uum was thrust into duty. And when Van Uum got hurt midway through the season, Bronson Landreth, another sophomore, had to step up.
Those two quarterbacks are currently battling it out in practice, Hepler said, and there’s another junior, Graham Long, who’s also in the mix for snaps, giving the Bulldogs what Hepler termed a “three-headed monster.” But in the end, whoever ends up as the starter likely won’t have sole claim to the position.
“One of those three could be the starter, but you’re going to see the other two guys play a bunch also, which I think will also help us in the long run,” Hepler said. “Because in this offense, the quarterback does get nicked up sometimes.”
The Bulldogs plan to reprise their option-based flexbone offense, Hepler said, perhaps with more emphasis on passing, and while multiple members of their big, experienced offensive line are gone to graduation, Hepler is looking to players like Luke Morrison and Marco Ramirez to give Central a more “athletic” line than 2018.
On the defensive line, Szakacs, a returning first team All-County honoree, and Nick Cribbs are expected to lead in the trenches, while Mitch Weber, who missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL after breaking out as a sophomore the previous year, could be one of the county’s most productive linebackers. Jake Bretz, who made a successful move into the secondary in the middle of the season, should be one of the Bulldogs’ leaders there after they lost Tristen Rose, the county leader in interceptions, to graduation.
One might wonder what Central’s next focus will be after the intoxicating feeling of constant improvement during the rebuild tapers off and many of the biggest goals have been accomplished. But Hepler sees no issue of where the program turns next – the playoffs aren’t going anywhere.
“They want to get back there again,” Hepler said. “You go to your favorite steakhouse and you have that steak and you want to go back there again. You’re not going to say, ‘Ah, I’m not going to go there – I’m going to have this yucky hamburger over here. No, man, you want to get back to that steakhouse. That’s kind of what it was for us this year.”